HOSHANA: SAVE US FROM WHAT?
Rabbi David Walk
For most people the mention of Sukot conjures up images of quaint huts standing beside our homes or waving palm branches during prayers. However, for some reason the first image which enters my mind is the haunting call of Hoshana, which we intone as we march around our synagogues during our prayers. I find this march to be spooky if not harrowing. In English (that means Christian usage) the word hosanna has come to mean a shout of fervent and worshipful praise. But the original Hebrew connotation is a cry for help, not physical help but spiritual help. I find this call for help a bit disturbing and jarring. We've just been through the Days of Awe, culminating in a joyous conclusion to Yom Kippur, when we feel that God has forgiven us for our sins and we begin a new slate. Added to that is the concept that Sukot is the time of our joy. So, why are we still kvetching? Let's just enjoy this festival of happiness.
Before I go into my relatively long answer, allow me to dispose of a popular response to this question. There is an opinion in rabbinic literature (Zohar, Teruma 142a) that for many people the judgment period is extended until Hoshana Raba, sort of a make-up period for those of us who didn't do so well the first time through. Many times in school there are students who ask about the possibility of a make-up assignment before they even take the test. Well, God's a very generous marker and allows this extra credit time. This answer is fine; except I don't like it, because it clashes with the Torah's view of these holidays. According to the verses, Yom Kippur works absolutely to purge us from sin (For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins. Leviticus 16:30), and Sukot is a time of unadulterated joy (Seven days you shall celebrate the Festival to the Lord, your God… and you will only be happy, Deuteronomy 16:15). Even our prayers state categorically that on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
The simplest answer to this conundrum is that we want to be saved from materialism and physical wealth. The joy of Sukot on the most literal level is the sense of well being that a farmer feels when the harvest is all in. Remember, once upon a time we were all farmers. So, one could legitimately posit that spiritually we are concerned that this happiness over the riches could blind us to the truly important aspects of life, namely spiritual growth. I believe that this is the reason that our Sages decreed that we should read the book of Ecclesiastes on Sukot. This most depressing volume reminds us that our physical well being is all vanity and of no major concern in the grand scheme of things. The great commentary Rashi (1040-1105) explained in the Torah reading of Eikev that the spiritual test of wealth is greater than the challenge of poverty.
Even though that answer is totally reasonable, I'd like to suggest another. One of the main causes of the Protestant Reformation (began 1517) was the corrupt practice of the Roman Catholic Church of selling Indulgences. This system allowed a sinner to pay the Church and be absolved from any sin that one had committed. The custom became so abused that people would pay for absolution before committing the sin. This practice ultimately would make a mockery of spiritual growth. What was the greatest danger in the issuance of Indulgences? It was the smug assurance of atonement without the difficult job of actual regret for the sin. The Teshuva or repentance process can't become a game, because then there will be no impetus for personality change and development, which is what we want. We want the penitent to be holy, not just free from punishment.
Now I believe that we can apply this principle to Sukot. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we make the normally short third blessing of Shmoneh Esreh (the silent devotion) quite long. We have three paragraphs which describe the Teshuva process. First we discuss fear. We enter the High Holidays afraid of and embarrassed before God, Our King. Next, we mention honor, because we should come to have reverence and respect for God and our Torah commitments. Finally, we describe how the righteous, who have been freed of their burden of sin, are joyous. Those are the three Holidays of this Hebrew month. We have trepidation on Rosh Hashanah, we have awe on Yom Kippur, and we have gladness on Sukot. In this scenario it's not the harvest that makes us happy on Sukot. It's the forgiveness.
Now, what am I afraid of? I'm afraid that I didn't really learn my lesson; that I'm not ready to change into a better person. I'm petrified that I will be the same flawed person next year that I was last year. God granted us that great gift of atonement, but what am I going to do with it? So, I chant, and I prayer, and I plead, "God, please, save me!" Save me from what? From myself, from complacency. Help me take the message of the High Holidays, and keep it alive, encouraging me toward spiritual betterment, all year long.
Everyone experiences a feeling of relief after the Yom Kippur fast is over. But what is the source of that relief? Is it that now I can eat again? Or is it that a burden has been lifted from me? Let's assume it's the latter. So, now I have a new question. Is it because Yom Kippur worked its magic, like a Get Out of Jail Free card? Or, is it because I'm ready to forge a new more loving relationship with God as a result of this experience?
May this Sukot be the most joyous of seasons, not because, phew, the High Holidays are over. But because we sit in our huts feeling ourselves in the shade of God's love, which we are committed to deserving. Chag Sameach!
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